The Caspian Sea is truly an archaeological tidbit. It is incredibly hard to ensure archaeological field work in this part of the world since the surrounding countries such as Turkmenistan are almost closed for international research. The regions surrounding the eastern Caspian Sea are transit territories for human migration fr om Near East to Central Asia. Those areas are of a great interest for timelining culture developments and adaptations of ancient societies.
In 1950s a large expedition conducted by Alexey Okladnikov led to the discovery of over 10 sites dated from 12 to 5 thousand years ago. In 2015, an attempt to revise those findings has grown into a big international project.
Dr. Svetlana Shnaider: Presently, we are studying the collections from old excavations. At one of the sites a couple of human burials were discovered. Remarkably, the skeletons were covered by shell beads but no stone tools were found in the graves while those artifacts are usually interpreted by archaeologists as chronological markers. The study of the shell beads became then our only way to obtain more accurate chronological attribution of the human remains. Luckily, we have Dr. Solange Rigaud as a team member. She is a renowned expert in shell ornaments, shell tools, but also stone and bone beads.
Dr. Solange Rigaud: For the first time we will have information on symbolic productions in this part of the world. We are looking at how transition to farming has changed ancient people’s perception of the world, their system of belief, their rituals and social organization. You would be surprised at how much it has to do with the production of beads. As soon as people start to produce items that are not really necessary for the day-to-day life, like beads, we can identify how they shaped their identity and culture.
By analyzing the burials we can observe the way the people were dressed and decorated their clothes. Ideally, if we had precise anthropological information about the buried people we could make conclusions about how they materialized their social or biological identity in the group. I mean, if one of the skeletons was identified as a female and the other as a male we could compare the ornaments and say that, based on similarities observed on the beads from the two burials, there was no gender distinction in terms of fashion in this community.
The idea behind large international projects is always to restore the broad scenario of evolution and behavioral changes through time and space. By understanding chronology and regional variations, archaeologists are building the whole picture piece by piece. Sites discovered near the Caspian Sea were previously dated during the first excavations, however today there are much better techniques to obtain more accurate dates.
Dr. Svetlana Shnaider: The sites wh ere the shell beads were discovered are located right on the cost of the Caspian Sea. Its level has risen and gone down tremendously over time. Our only way to have any kind of relative chronology with these sites is to compare the shell bead material with those from similar sites with better chronological attribution.
During this period, people maintained large contact networks: they traded things, food, cultural items and ceramics. They were also likely to share fashion - clothes, personal attires, decorations and so on.